It is with great sadness that I just learned of the death of Milton Stevens on July 30th, who had been the principal trombonist of the National Symphony for the last 29 years. He was 64 years old.
I met Milt through the National Conducting Institute, during which he presented his intonation seminar “Tune it or Die.” As a former quartet player and someone who’s been obsessed with theories of intonation for many years, what I most enjoyed about the session was the pedagogical directness with which he was able to lay out to the class mixture of simple and sophisticated concepts. One can get mired in theory so fast with discussions of intonation, that one never registers the practical applications- with Milt, everyone came away with some fresh practical tools for solving the tuning problems inherent in all music.In rehearsals at the NSO, he was always the perfect colleague, and also someone who was always interested in what the cover conductor was hearing from the audience. Like any great brass player, he could make a grand racket when called for, but he also showed great concern for the sound of the entire orchestra and the role the brass section played in establishing that sound.
Last time I saw Milt, the NSO was playing Schumann 3, which has one of the most ferocious and exposed first trombone parts in the repertoire. It can humble anyone, and parts like that don’t get easier as you get older and Milt had been in the orchestra 28 years at that point. When one of “those” solos comes along, many players like to keep their heads down during the week and not talk too much about “the big solo,” but one of the highlights of that week of covering for Leonard was a long chat with Milt about Schumann’s trombone writing, the benefits of different types of horn in his music in general and that piece in particular, and the technical and tuning issues of that famous passage. It was hugely interesting and helpful, and typical of his enduring passion for what he did. And yes, he played the fourth movement solo very, very well.
One of the nicer guys you could ever meet in this business, and someone who always seemed to treat people with respect. A lovely guy. I’ll always think of him when I’m screaming “tune it or die!” at the brass section….
c. 2007 Kenneth Woods